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Theology

Thought For The Day – Index

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I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website and this post serves an index to these pieces.

2nd October 2018 – Choices

4th September 2018 – Weather-making

23rd August 2018 – Festival Season

25th July 2018 – St Anne

8th June 2018 – Sabbath

29th March 2018 – The Royal Maundy

8th March 2018 – International Women’s Day

19th January 2018 – Loneliness

14th November 2017 – The BBC

30th August 2017 – Bridges

18th August 2017 – Sad News

27th July 2017 – The Sleeper

11th May 2017 – Blessed Transactions

28th April 2017 – Passing Places

28th February 2017 – Pancake Day

2nd February 2017 – Groundhog Day

1st November 2016 – Red Letter Days

Thought For The Day – Choices – 2nd Oct 2018

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As rescuers struggle to reach the victims, the death toll from the tsunami in Indonesia keeps rising. Our screens are filled with pictures of devastation and grief, and we wonder how on earth anyone can bear it any more. We seem to be hearing about extreme weather events too frequently these days, and too many people are dying. Thanks to the aid agencies, we can offer practical assistance to the communities affected, but our over-riding reaction to this news is often a sense of powerlessness in the face of natural disaster. Tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, are all considered ‘Acts of God’, even by insurance companies, who often won’t pay out for them, because they’re not caused by human hands.

So we turn to our religious leaders, seeking soothing words about meaning and purpose, and we observe with relief the inspiring outpourings of humanity that tend to accompany life’s worst episodes. And sometimes religious words help. There’s even a specialism within theology that devotes itself to making sense of the evils that happen, in spite of a loving God. But I wonder how much longer we can continue to blame all of this weather on God.

Yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commissioned by the United Nations. 3 years in the making, it involved 86 lead authors from 39 countries. They’ve combed through all the scientific literature, on the feasibility, impacts and costs, of achieving a 1.5 degrees centigrade ceiling on global warming. The good news is they reckon it can be done, if the world takes some very tough steps, which will require massive global governmental consensus and action. But the report also asks us to look again at our lifestyles, to try to make more of a difference through our own everyday choices. In the olden days, God made the weather. Well, we’re making it now, and that’s a rather sobering thought.

Meanwhile, this dreadful news makes us all think about what it must be like to lose everything. In sending all love and strength to everyone suffering in Indonesia, let’s also hold our own loved ones close today.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Destiny and Character

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Sermon preached at St Pancras on Sunday 16 September

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are about destiny. The passage from Isaiah is one of the Servant Songs. These foretold the coming of a Messiah to lead the nations, who would suffer, but in the end be rewarded. You’ll recognise some of the other servant songs from Isaiah, because much of the first part of Handel’s Messiah sets them to music: how beautiful are the feet, he was despis’ed, surely he has borne our griefs, all we like sheep.

The striking bell in the St Pancras clock is broken at the moment. After the quarters chime, there is now an expectant pause… For years the Jews had been stuck in this pause, waiting for their Messiah. Then one day, Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read this passage from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The reading from Mark develops this privately with the disciples: ‘who do people say that I am?’, and he warns them, that being the Messiah will mean rejection, suffering and death. He also mentions resurrection, but perhaps they don’t quite hear this bit, because Peter rebukes him about being so gloomy. Jesus then tells the crowd that discipleship means they have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. I imagine at that point he lost quite a lot of the crowd. Read More

Thought For The Day – Weather-making – 4th Sep 2018

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In Mexico, the car-maker Volkswagen is being criticised for overuse of Hail Cannons. To avoid damage to the new cars they store outside, they’ve invested in vast machines that fire waves of pressure into the air to prevent hailstorms. But the farmers around them are claiming that this also prevents rain, so their crops are failing. Cloud-busting has been going on for quite a while. For their Olympics, the Beijing Weather Modification Office used 21 rockets around the city to fire silver iodide into the clouds, to make the rain fall before it reached the capital.

And manipulating the weather has been a motivation for religion since time began. We’ve had sun gods and rain gods, gods of thunder and gods of the winds, and we worshipped them to seek a measure of control over the weather. The Bible itself is full of weather phenomena – Noah’s flood and the famous rainbow; it raining quail and manna during the Exodus; Jesus calming the storm; and the sky turning black on Good Friday. In those days, God made the weather. But these days, we make it; not just through cannons and rockets, but through how we live. The choices we make, and our addiction to fossil fuels, are contributing to the slow baking of the earth. And while it can feel like we’re too small to take on such a big global issue, perhaps we could all join the dots more than we do.

We’re getting better at carrying shopping bags, to avoid the 5p charge for a plastic one, and hopefully reducing the amount of plastic ending up in the oceans and in landfill.  But there’s still a lot of plastic in our clothes. Nylon can take 30 to 40 years to break down in landfill, so perhaps the next thing we could work on is how to re-use and recycle our clothes, so we’re all doing our bit to make the right sort of weather in future.

We’re also getting better at working with the weather, and finding ways to harvest it too, through forests of wind turbines, and fields of solar panels. Of course Scotland has pioneered hydro-electricity for many years, given that we’re often blessed with wet weather. And as Autumn starts to be felt, perhaps one day, we’ll find a way to do something productive with all those Autumn leaves, too.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – Festival Season – 23rd Aug 2018

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In a bid to combat fake news, Facebook has just confirmed that it’s started scoring users on their trustworthiness. They hope this will allow their algorithms to de-prioritise those posts likely to be misinformed, so they appear lower down in people’s news feeds.

It’s a common criticism of social media, that all this sharing and retweeting merely creates an echo chamber where the same information is endlessly recycled until it becomes stagnant. And if it’s fake news in the first place, this process just reinforces the error: because if we see the same thing repeatedly, we start to believe it. So how can we help refresh public discourse, rather than being infected by over-shared viruses, rather like the air conditioning on a plane?

It’s Festival season in Edinburgh, in the Borders and in many other places in the UK. I’ll be at the arts, faith and justice festival Greenbelt this weekend, because I believe that arts and book festivals can help in our fight to combat fake news, because they improve the quality of our public conversations. Where else would you find the First Minister talking to Ali Smith about why novels are needed to heal political divisions; or hear Nelson Mandela’s daughter talking about her dad and how she answers her grandchildren’s questions about him; or see Rose McGowan talking about what it really feels like to take on Hollywood about the #MeToo campaign?

“Book festivals? A bit middle class?”- Perhaps they used to be, but the same internet which fuels fake news, also serves to democratise information too. Most authors make their material available online, much of it for free. And most festivals post videos online, or have media partners like local radio to make sure that everyone can join in.

I once saw Colin Dexter at a festival, talking about Inspector Morse. There’s a hush that always falls at the end when the author asks for questions. “I imagine you’ll need some time to formulate your questions,” he said, until someone bravely stepped in. And that’s the gift that these festivals can give us – whether we’re there in person or online. They’re a golden opportunity to hear a whole range of conversations and thinking out loud, to help us to formulate better questions, and to seek better answers.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – St Anne – 25th Jul 2018

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I wonder what you had on your mind when you woke up this morning?

On this day in 306 AD, a Roman soldier called Constantine woke up in the army barracks at York, to find himself later that day being made the Emperor of the entire Roman Empire. And also today, in 1603, King James the Sixth of Scotland woke up, down south, and was crowned James the First of England in Westminster Abbey. Whether it was Christianity becoming the world’s primary religion, or the Union of England with Scotland, the events both set in train remain huge political issues to this day.

But it’s not just rulers-in-waiting or politicians who’re waking up to a big day. You may not have Brexit in your in-tray, but you may be making decisions that affect people’s lives. Maybe you work in the NHS; or in the law or public service; or maybe you’re responsible for vulnerable people. Or perhaps you just have a really difficult work situation on your mind, that could make other people’s lives worse, or better, and you’re not sure what to do.

Earlier this year, a ComRes survey found that a surprising one in five adults turns to prayer in a crisis, despite saying they’re not religious. Some people pray to God, and some pray to the saints.

I once asked a Catholic priest why praying to Mary was such a big thing. He said that when people were feeling a bit scared of God, they could pray to Jesus; and if they were feeling scared of Jesus, they might well feel more comfortable asking his Mum instead. I like this very down-to-earth approach to seeking spiritual support. And tomorrow happens to be the Feast of St Anne, who was Jesus’ Granny.

She’s the patron saint of single women, housewives, women in labour, grandmothers, teachers, horse-riders, cabinet-makers, miners, and sailors, so she covers a breadth of humanity. And I’m sure like most Grannies, she can turn her hand to most things.

Everyone wakes up to the unknown. But I believe we’re not alone, and that sometimes, just asking for help, from whatever source, can make us feel just a little bit better.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – Sabbath – 8th Jun 2018

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Did you ever have to learn poetry at school? I did. One of the poems I remember was called Schule in June, by Robert Bain. It’s about having to stay inside when it’s a lovely day. It ends up with this complaint:

…..I ‘ve no objection to lessons,

Whiles – but in June?

This is the time of year when we yearn for a break. The world beyond the window seems to be calling to us, and nature puts on her most alluring display to tempt us outside. Many of us are lucky enough to have holidays in prospect. But for some, holidays are a luxury. At least today’s Friday, so we have the weekend to look forward to. But will it really be a rest for you?

Most of the world’s religions have some version of a Sabbath or rest day. Between them, these religions represent thousands of years of wisdom. They encode those vital messages about life that our ancestors kept for us and thought we should hear. The Sabbath appearing in so many of them, is a message from our ancestors, to remind us how important it is that we rest. But in most of Scotland, life goes on 24/7, and there are so few things you can’t now do on a Sunday, that it can feel like any other day of the week. So how can we keep Sabbath even when we’re busy?

The central idea of sabbath is about stopping. It’s about taking the time, rather than spending it. It’s as though we get extra time, by pausing in our busyness. If you’ve ever taken part in a mindfulness exercise, or found yourself lost in prayer, you’ll have felt this sense of being somehow out of time. And that’s why Sabbath helps to restore a sense of perspective, like seeing fragile planet Earth from the moon for the first time, because it allows us to re-start when we re-enter our world again.

So anything you could do today to stop. To breathe. To pause. Anything that takes you away from your busyness, so that you can see it anew on your return.  Anything that smuggles Sabbath into your everyday, would at least make schule in June feel like a foretaste of holidays to come. Have a lovely day.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

On pruning

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 6 May 2018

May is Mary’s month; but it’s also exam month. Do you remember the annual tyranny of cramming, and past papers, and exam halls? It’s still one of the most common anxiety dreams, I gather, turning over an exam paper and having nothing to write.

In the Ignatian tradition they love exams: daily exams. The Daily Examen is a meditation that at its heart includes a review of the day just passed, to identify times when you grew closer to God, and times you drew further away. The examen concludes with a forward look, at how tomorrow you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan for you.

As we heard in our Gospel today: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ I wonder how often you ponder God’s plan for you, and assess your current state of fruitfulness?

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Thought For The Day – The Royal Maundy – 29th Mar 2018

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Later today, the Queen will meet 92 men and 92 women at St George’s Chapel in Windsor and hand them each a leather purse of Maundy Money.

The Royal Maundy was introduced by King John in 1213. In those days, the ceremony involved foot-washing, because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on that very first Maundy Thursday in Jerusalem. In the Royal Maundy, before the monarch got anywhere near a poor person’s feet, there were always several pre-washes by B-list dignitaries, and the flowers to mask the smell are still ceremonially carried today.

After the foot-washing, the poor were given food, clothes, and as many pence as there were years in the monarch’s reign. The monarch would then take off their gown, and give it to someone who looked particularly needy. Until Elizabeth I wasn’t happy to part with one of her fancy outfits, and gave the poor money instead. The gifts of clothing stopped too, because the poor used to take their clothes off during the service, and swap with each other until they found things to fit, which made the bishops a bit nervous. They’ve now stopped the food as well, because the poor were caught selling it outside the church immediately after the service for less than it was worth.

All that remains, is the cash. There are actually two purses. One purse contains £5.50 in ordinary money: £1 in lieu of the monarch’s gown, £3 for the gift of clothing, and £1.50 instead of the food. The other purse contains the Maundy Money, the specially minted silver coins up to the value equivalent to the monarch’s age.

It’s a bizarre piece of annual pageantry, but it mirrors a shift in society, too; money instead of action. Now that we have a welfare state and pay our taxes, maybe we feel we don’t really need to bother so much with the poor, because the government and the charity sector does that for us.

So I wonder whose feet you’d be happy to wash? In Jesus’ time, the custom of foot-washing was about showing hospitality to guests. We often take care of our children and the vulnerable in more personal ways than this, and we do it because we love them enough to overcome our aversion. So perhaps the point of the foot-washing is not really about the feet, but about the quality of our love and care for others.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – International Women’s Day – 8th Mar 2018

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It’s International Women’s Day today, and this year we’re also marking 100 years since the first women finally got the vote. Companies now report on gender splits and gender pay gaps, and books like Lean In are helping us all to proactively scramble up the career ladder.  We have female heads of state north and south of the border, and the first female bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church was consecrated only last week.

Have we finally won the battle for gender equality?

Maybe not.  Recent research reported in the Harvard Business Review is very sobering. To test the ‘Lean In’ hypothesis, that women are disadvantaged at work because they don’t do power the way that men do, researchers attached sensors to a sample of 100 individuals in a typical company. These socio-metric badges tracked workplace conversations; to measure movement, proximity to others, speech volume and tone of voice.

Over a four-month period, they linked the data from the badges with an analysis of emails and meeting schedules. And what did they find? That in fact women and men don’t behave so differently at work after all. Yet in this company – as in companies all round the world – the women were not advancing as their male colleagues were. The team concluded from their study that you can Lean In all you like, and it will make no difference.

And it’s both men and women discriminating against women. Unconscious bias studies show that women discriminate against women, too. Solicitors of both genders are more likely to instruct male counsel to fight cases in court, and studies show that even women think female doctors are less competent and less experienced than male doctors.

We’re used to blaming discrimination on everybody else, because of course we’re not biased. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously warned against hypocrisy, saying: “First, take the plank out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your friend’s.” It seems that we all have work to do to address gender bias, and if you take an Unconscious Bias test online you might well be shocked to learn what you do take for granted. So today, I wonder if there are any planks in your own eye, that you might start fashioning into spectacles instead?

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.